My Life with Animals

As far back as I remember, I’ve always had a pet, usually a dog. In my 30s I acquired my first cat. Now I’ve some of each, and can’t imagine life without pets.

My first pet was a short-haired pointer, one that a neighbor gave to me when I wasn’t even a year old — one that my dad hunted for years. She was my best friend. Kate was loving and patient; if I tried to ride her, she stood there. If I fell off, she stood there. If I called, she came. If Dad asked her where I was, she found me. She was, my dad proclaimed until he died, the best dog he ever had. The last day of her life, she managed to get out and run when he took her out in the field. One last good afternoon, and then she died. I was, I think, 11, and I thought my heart would break. I had no memories of life without her.

We had other dogs, almost always pointers. Once we had a dachshund that my grandmother gave us. Maxie had the cutest quizzical face — he’d look up at you, his little forehead wrinkled and his head cocked. Someone poisoned him one weekend, and he was so small — he just didn’t survive. Shortly afterwards, someone poisoned our pointer, who was larger and who did survive. Both dogs were confined, so someone had to search them out. I’ve never understood what drives people to deliberately hurt animals.

By the time I was in college, I had to enjoy the pets only on weekends, whenever I was home. I also began to bring home strays. Though friends thought my parents wouldn’t let me keep them, they were wrong. In fact, with one puppy I found, so young his eyes weren’t open, my dad sat in the floor with me, feeding that puppy with an eyedropper.

On my own in grad school, I got a tiny puppy, a cross between a chihuahua and a poodle — Punkin. Bright, curious, and lively, she was my companion for almost 9 years. From LSU (grad school) to Lamar (teaching) to Texas A&M (grad school) to McNeese, Punkin saw me through my studies, my heartbreaks, my first full-time job, and got me settled in what would be my career job. Her heart murmur finally killed her, And I cried as though my heart would break. Dad came over, picked her body up, and took her back to Egan to bury her.

She died just before I defended my dissertation. The day I defended, I bought a Shih Tzu, my first (but not my last). Scarlett stole my heart. A few months later, she was joined by a stray Shih Tzu mix (Rocky) and my first cat (R.B.) We were a happy menagerie for years. After I bought my house, we were joined by another stray, a cat that simply followed me inside one day. Lil Bit stayed a bit longer than her name might indicate.

Scarlett lived nearly 16 years, Rocky almost 13. RB lived almost 18 years and Lil Bit over 11 years.

Along the way I also acquired Scruffy (a terrier mix, rescued from the 12th Street Kroger parking lot). After only Scruffy and RB were left, my cousin in Galveston (his wife, actually) found a little Shih Tzu wandering the streets in their neighborhood. Black and white, terribly matted, she came to live with me. Zoe cemented the place Shih Tzus have made in my heart.

By the time I evacuated for Hurricane Ike, I only had Scruffy and Zoe and RB. Within months, all of them were dead. Lots of pets didn’t survive long after the hurricane; stress took its toll on many of our little companions.

Gypsy was a Shih Tzu my sister found wandering the streets in Natchitoches. Kay found her owners, but soon her owners decided not to keep her. I took her. Then I took a long-haired calico from a friend — Callie.

Only two, I said. Enough. That didn’t last long. Then I saw a little black and white Shih Tzu mix and fell in love again. Zsa Zsa joined the family. Rocky, a black and white male kitten, came from my dad’s yard in Egan; I couldn’t stand to see him disappear as so many of the yard cats did.

Four. More than enough, I said. That was true until I was in Greece, on the island of Spetses a few years ago. While I was sitting at a cafe near the port, a small calico kitten zeroed in on me, rubbed around my ankles, jumped in my lap, climbed on my shoulder, and went to sleep. Apparently, I have “sucker” written on my forehead not only in English but also in Greek. Getting her home was less trouble than I though. With a nod to what I was reading at the time, I named her Homer. I mean, Homer might have been a woman; we don’t know for sure.

So my house is full. Three cats, two dogs. Most of them are rescue animals. All are loving creatures. Homer thinks she’s a dog, it seems. She hangs with the two dogs. Romeo is meek, peeping up at me, hesitantly sneaking up on the bed if the others let her. Callie sticks to the study, her territory. She’ll wander in to the laundry room and kitchen for food and water, occasionally into the bedroom. Mostly, though, she stays to herself.

It’s not easy to travel with pets, not most of the time. For a few days or a week, I manage with leaving enough food and water, having friends check on them. For longer periods, say for three months when I’m in Greece, I’ve managed to get a house-sitter who lives in the house for free, but cares for the animals. This year, though, I had to cobble together pet-sitters, a friend who cleans my house, other friends, and my sister – because I couldn’t find a live-in sitter. I’ve got to start working on that for thenext long trip.

My pets demand attention, certainly. They also require maintenance. Cat litter. Dog walks and papers. Food and water. Lots of attention.

But they’re so rewarding. Constant companions, they seem to sense when I’m upset or stressed or depressed. They’ll curl around me in bed, barricading me in from what would hurt me. They lick me, reassuring me of their love. They look into my eyes with total trust.

When I’m gone for long periods of time, I miss my sister and niece, my cousins and aunts, my friends. And my pets. When I miss having them with me, I know it’s time to go back to Louisiana and join them.

Without my own children, I guess my pets are my children. They are my support system. They need me as nothing else and no one else does. They love unconditionally.

Studies show that pet therapy has many positive effects. Petting a dog or cat can lower blood pressure. Residents in nursing homes respond when therapy pets are brought around — they’re happy, they smile.

The joys are worth the troubles, worth the losses. Their places in my heart are irreplaceable. Yet there’s always room for loving another.

As for me, I know that if possible, I’ll always have a pet. At least one.

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